No alternatives

David Brooks’ Friday column consists of a rather melancholic “what might have been,” an “Alternate History” in which the Democrats under Obama’s leadership put up “No Quick Fixes” signs all around the White House, and “define themselves as the economic Back to Basics Party.”

In Brooks’ 2009, the Obamacrats begin by enacting a stimulus bill that’s significantly bipartisan in concept – heavy on payroll tax relief, light to the vanishing point on traditional Democrat government-centric spending programs.  They then choose to “do energy first” rather than health care reform, a decision that enables them to spend the Summer of 2009 “talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains,” and expanding upon the “strategy for a century of growth.”  It leads eventually to this:

Americans didn’t like all of it. But this wasn’t conventional big government liberalism. The Democrats seemed to be a serious party attending to serious things. When November 2010 rolled around, the unemployment rate was still high, but Democratic leaders had prepared voters for that. In the meantime, America was rebuilding its core, strengthening itself for better days ahead.

We can disagree with some or all of Brooks’ prescriptions, and still acknowledge that the centrist, long-term, self-consciously grown-up approach he recommends might have served the Democrats politically much better than what they actually did.  To say the least, that’s a low bar.  It also shifts the blame  entirely to the Democrats for not living up to Brooks’ expectations.

Beginning with Brooks’ main suggestion, we can ask if there is really any good reason to believe that, if the Democrats had chosen to “do energy first,” conservatives wouldn’t have been fully prepared to attack whatever they produced, from top to bottom and in detail, along much the same lines that they (we) attacked Obamacare.  Undoubtedly, a new energy policy would have included a heavy climate change component, and would therefore have been subjected to an amplified version of the by now familiar “Climate Fraud” attack.  Every aspect of green economics would have been criticized – as cost-ineffective, overly intrusive, counterproductive – all in all a pie-in-the-sky distraction from the “real” problems besetting the American economy.  Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, and eventually John McCain, too, would likely have depicted the Democrats’ “strategy for a century of growth” as a plan to “fundamentally transform” America into a socialist Hell…

…and by now David Brooks might be wondering why Obama wasted so much of his political capital on unpopular, pointless, controversial, compromised, irrelevant, and incoherent energy legislation, missing the historical opportunity to pass bipartisan health care reform that would have addressed competitivity issues and long-term budgetary pressures, delivered palpable relief to distressed citizens and businesses, and fulfilled a major campaign promise – thus convincing the public that the Democrats were a serious party determined to do serious things.

Or maybe he’d find something else they could have done rather than whatever they did. The point is that the real question cannot be merely, “Why weren’t the Democrats much smarter and wiser – or at least as smart and wise as David Brooks?”  Why weren’t we, why aren’t we, able to produce, embrace, and implement a coherent national strategy that at least appears wise, and for longer than it takes to read and think over a Friday column in the New York Times?  Obama and his party would have to have set out to alter the terms of our national discourse, but, as much a shock as 2008 was, as wearing as the ongoing economic crisis has been, it has not yet shaken us out of our accustomed ways of doing and perceiving things.  We are still the same people we were before 2008, going about our lives and discussing and pursuing policy options in essentially the same way and on the same terms as in 2007, and, with minor adjustments, 1997, 1987, and even 1977.

It would take a more definitive and comprehensive self-rejection and will to self-re-creation to make Brooks’ politics, whatever its specific content, possible.

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Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution. 

54 comments on “No alternatives

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  1. Obama is a moderate leftist,but he is charactorized as a radical leftist. Therfore he should have been much more radical than he was,and he would not be one percentage point worse off:Single payor universal healthcare,brought the troops home vietnam style,reestablished Glass Steagall,gone the FDR route on Infrastructure projects to generate jobs,and told the Republicans to f–k themselves, Had he done that,he would not be any less popular than he is,and he would have joined FDR as the great F–k the upper class populist.
    As it is,he looks like a jerk,and nobody respects him,neither his enemies or his would be friends.
    Despite all that,I like him without repecting him.

  2. @ Rex Caruthers:
    When I read what Jennifer Rubin or some of our old comrades say about Obama, I somewhat agree with you. You’re either with them, or you’re with the terrorists. But, if he is a moderate leftist, he probably wouldn’t have been able to play radical for very long. It would have been a masquerade. If he had gone your route, or could have, I think there might very well have been heightened mass resistance and dislocation, including violence. But that’s all speculation: He is what he is and we are who and what we are – blind/self-blinded as we were discussing last week. We are committed to remaining blind. At most, we see certain partial collective fantasies vividly, or grasp around haltingly at particular obstructions, but the world as it is mostly remains well beyond us. Our only chance, for now, is that we manage like my blind dog Annie to bump our way to the water bowl. If someone takes the water bowl away, we will likely die of thirst.

  3. Instead of looking for politicians to maintain the center position, we should position ourselves to sway things in accordance with what makes sense. There should be no “we” or “they” on our side. It’s not “conservative” to be a doomsday kind of guy, whether you’re writing about what’s going to happen with South Korea or the environment. Let’s not “masquerade” as anything ourselves. If we play politics from our heart, together, the politicians that we need will come. They will act conservatively or liberally according to their nature and we will be able to support good conservative behavior or good liberal behavior in connection with real events, not imagined doomsday scenarios.

  4. He’s always been a hack politician, foremost, he leans left, but there’s a reason in a dozen years, he had few accomplishments to his credit.
    Maybe if the Democrats had picked a Bayh or a Webb, such a strategy
    as Brook’s delusion might have come about, out of necessity if not intellectual effort. Glass Steagall is as useless as the Fin Reg bill to actually address the problems in the financial sector. He was bouyied
    by slum lords, Baathist fixers, the subprime desperadoes, did we expect anything better

  5. Scott Miller wrote:

    If we play politics from our heart, together, the politicians that we need will come.

    If that could happen, it might occur effectively apart from our political system – a New Age harmonic convergence/maturation/whatever in the whole culture that includes the political system and politicians.

    Brooks was, I think, trying to imagine a mature politics for a mature nation, and he implicitly faults Obama for not being mature enough/wise enough to guide us toward it. The argument would be that there is or was a golden mean that, in addition to being more practically effective, would also have been more popular and therefore politically successful.

    I’m agreeing with you in the sense that I also think we, all of us, determine what’s possible for our politicians. Right now, the politicians who are successfully polarizing against Obama are being rewarded, and the ones who, on the terms of our current political system, sought flexibility are being punished. But that’s a polar correction whose result will be a kind of balancing overall. However, Brooks is also arguing implicitly that good work wasn’t done that should have been done – and that the country remains adrift. So the conclusion would seem to be that we – all of us – weren’t ready for a mature politics, and still don’t seem to be, and are paying a mounting price for it.

  6. @ CK MacLeod:
    Yes. We “determine what’s possible.” We also determine the level on which that determination takes place. As a very famous physicists once said, “Solutions to problems don’t happen on the same level of consciousness on which the problems occur.” That quote could be applied to many of my unwritten responses to what you have recently written. As always, I am, as my father would have said, “tickled” by your ideas and like the way they are stated, but many times, I find myself wondering how you could continue to think that their are low-level answers to low-level problems.

  7. Spain, bouyied by a second rate lefty pol, Zapatero, tried the Green economy strategy, it’s results have been underwhelming, Down under
    Rudd ultimately dissented from such a move, and Gillard looks likely to fall because of it. Robinson, works hard to be unaware of any substantive objections to the Obama agenda, it makes it easier to go on Morning Joe, I suppose, occasionally he has ‘gone rogue’ but too
    few times to be of note

  8. Scott Miller wrote:

    I find myself wondering how you could continue to think that their are low-level answers to low-level problems.

    Well, if you could point to a recent example, or slap me down the next time I appear to think such a thing, it would be helpful to me, as I’m not understanding you as well as I’d like to.

  9. @ CK MacLeod:
    I was really referring to a couple things in “The Great Set-up.” I realize that your views are maturely tempered compared to most “R’s”, but you do admit to being for the Iraq war initially and the statement “By intervening as we did and how we did, we helped set the timetable of revolutionary violence and put ourselves in place to absorb and channel it” does keep you tied, albeit loosely, to the exact kind of low level solution that inspired Einstein to say what he did.

  10. The Sunni tribesman that were empowered by the Brits, in the 1920s, and the expression of the denial of the Shia/Kurd majority, expressed
    in the Golden Square and later the Baath, has been the source of most of the problems in Iraq’a bac.kground. In retrospect, the Ilkwan
    was always the greater foe, they were in 1805, in the mid to late 20s
    and during the post OIF period, it was just ‘undiplomatic’ to point it out. That’s just taking the long view, instead of just focusing on this decade

  11. Scott Miller wrote:

    @ CK MacLeod:
    I was really referring to a couple things in “The Great Set-up.” I realize that your views are maturely tempered compared to most “R’s”, but you do admit to being for the Iraq war initially and the statement “By intervening as we did and how we did, we helped set the timetable of revolutionary violence and put ourselves in place to absorb and channel it” does keep you tied, albeit loosely, to the exact kind of low level solution that inspired Einstein to say what he did.

    Well, let’s get a coupla thins straight: I’m not now and never have been a member of the R Party. I’ve only ever been a registered I. Also, you’re referring to the Iraq Syndrome piece not the Great Set-Up, and, to the point, the sentence you quote is a neutral description of the facts as I see them: It doesn’t take a position as to whether intervening was a good idea – or amounted to a “solution.” Intervention of the sort I described can be seen as one option among others, though from another point of view there was no option at all: As the world-historical nation of our era, the carrier of bourgeois revolution (“leader of the Free World”) and the guarantor of the world political-economic order, we were bound to be involved in that way.

    The position that I’ve taken all along, even before I decided to lend the Bush Administration my critical support (without which no doubt the plans would never have gone forward, of course), was that the Iraq War doesn’t deserve to be considered a “war” all on its own. It can’t be understood in isolation. In one important sense, it was the deferred conclusion of the Gulf War, which in turn needs to be seen in the context of the just-concluded Cold War, as does 9/11 – 9/11 standing as a combined aftershock of the Gulf War and of the Afghan War, and also as a byproduct of maintenance of the same “world order” in which the other two conflicts ought to be further contextualized.

    Even before 9/11, the situation in and around Iraq was unstable and untenable. We were already engaged, there was no decision we could have made that would have disengaged us (militarily, economically, morally) and have insulated us from the consequences, and it was extremely likely if not inevitable (for all intents and purposes inevitable) that violence would eventually escalate catastrophically. Like many other observers, at the moment I saw the second plane hit on 9/11, I knew that Saddam Hussein’s regime would be brought down fairly soon – not because I believed that Saddam had anything directly to do with 9/11, but because I knew we had entered a new historical phase, that things had changed, and that we would respond aggressively, eliminating sources of unpredictability and potential danger.

    So my support for the war was based on the sense that it was going to happen anyway, and that the criticisms coming from the other side were weak and misguided. At the time the key decisions had not yet been made, none of the alternative scenarios was credible to me. Not acting – which at any point would have implied reversing course on some level – also would have had consequences, all of which, in my view at the time, risked greatly escalating dangers. (Few of those, incidentally, had anything to do with WMD. Though I had always believed that WMD stockpiles of some kind would be found, I never thought it more likely than not that they’d be very significant militarily, and I always thought that uncertainty about Saddam’s WMD program was likely more significant than the actual WMD themselves.) All along, to this day, supporting the war meant supporting particular decisions at particular times as against alternatives, based on whatever available information. I can now look back and wonder whether options I resisted – delaying the initial attack, de-funding the war in 2005-6, fleeing the scene rather than tactically escalating via the Surge, etc. – might not have been as disastrous as I thought they would have been at the time, but I think it’s too easy, a mere moral and intellectual evasion, just to rest on “I opposed the war” or “I should have opposed the war” without referring to specific decision points and specific alternatives within the larger context.

  12. @ CK MacLeod:
    Thanks for making that all clear. I do find the “blogosphere” a bit confusing. With your help, I’ll get used to it. I’m grateful as well for your clarifications. They go right to what I really wanted to address. Remember, this is about “determination.” So your belief that the Iraq whatever-you-want-to-call-it was going to happen anyway” is the real issue here. That’s what I contest. The underlining fatalism. Of course, in using the word “fatalism” I know I can expect a really great response from you. It’s a very triggering word and I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t inspire a really funny Hegelian outpouring from you. Sorry about the “R’s” thing. I wasn’t really assuming anything other than the general connection to Bush’s policies, and I do realize that at least your fatalism (there’s that word again) is conservative in nature, not just some “masquerade,” which was another thing I was responding to from another one of the pieces you wrote which was one of the things swimming all around me here in a sphere I find alien, disorienting and kind of scary. But don’t feel sorry for me, I’m just playing weak so I can rise up like a Phoenix at some point.

  13. @ Scott Miller:
    I think we have to distinguish between fatalism of the intellect and fatalism of the act. The collective act of intervening pre-emptively expressed the diametrical opposite of fatalistic passivity in the face of “gathering danger.” On that level, it was the opponents of the war who were fatalistic: It’s all terrible, let’s just keep talking and pretending indefinitely, refusing to take direct responsibility for whatever occurs, refusing to notice how unreal and irrelevant our talking is becoming. For the U.S. to take that position would have been an abdication of leadership, and the effects of such an abdication couldn’t have been contained just to the relatively minor question of the fate of Saddam Hussein’s government.

    Don’t know that I have a funny Hegelian outpouring on tap. I’ve wanted to avoid OD’ing on vulgar Hegelianism for now. I don’t expect to be reading Hegel again for around another week, and I fatalistically anticipate difficulty restraining myself when that time comes. However, there was a brief Hegel discussion that I cut from the Iraq Syndrome piece. Its traces are in the relationship noted between violence and freedom – including especially violence/risk of life as proof of freedom. That’s what I meant when I said that “Operating Iraqi Freedom” could only have been a willed confrontation with catastrophe. Saying that is to acknowledge that in choosing to act we did so without recognizing what we were getting ourselves and the Iraqis into, but it’s not saying that we had any better choice. This is the subject for a more extensive discussion that I’m thinking about promoting to the level of a main post – or three-part series of three-part series of three-part posts, if I choose to expand upon the frog’s recent example.

  14. We had been to war with Iraq, before a much more brief affair, much like WW 1 was, there was something inherent in the nature of Baathism
    that would lead to another confrontation, events in 1994, 1996, & 1998. The chief mechanism for containment the sanctions regime had turned into a sinecure for parties like the French and Russian govt, the prospect of continued support for the air corridor was threatened by attacks against bases in the area, like what happened in Dhahran in
    1996, by either AQ or incollaboration with Saudi Hezbollah, common to
    the Hasa province of the Kingdom.

  15. miguel cervantes wrote:

    there was something inherent in the nature of Baathism
    that would lead to another confrontation

    It’s stuff such as this that makes me sad for the Zombies and their Tsar. When the Imperial Court fell under the sway of the German idealist philosophists, twas but a matter of time.

  16. @ fuster:
    Wasn’t anything to be done about that. Hegel and the Hegelians denied, by the way, being “idealists.”

    They tell you the truth, and you think it’s Hell.

    And Baathism was designed to be confrontational, and it was said that the very name “Saddam” meant “he who confronts/does not back down.” Baathism was, in fact, a very rational political-ideological response to the predicament of the Arab world admist de-colonization and its aftermath. It was rational and powerful enough that we felt we had to knock it down, and so far may have failed despite massive and expensive effort.

    You can’t be the richest most advanced, and most powerful nation in the history of history, sponsor and protector of a system that requires safe transit through and cheapest possible extraction of finite resources from the most backward, (otherwise, generally) poorest, and least powerful region of the world – without having some major imbalances and frictions to cope with (and those aren’t the only inequalities/imbalances). The human material being what it is, the inevitable re-adjustments of forced equilibrium are likely to be uneven, disruptive, and bloody.

  17. @ fuster:
    Reads great doesn’t it, right down to the charming translation glitches? But you do Saddam a grave disservice, you bad frog, by denying that he played a major role in defining what real existing Baathism meant. There were two Baathisms – the idealistic Pan-Arab vision, and the strong man vision – and each was threatening in its own way, all the more so when they came together, and the West has fought a series of bloody wars with its variants, both directly and by proxy.

  18. oh, it reads pretty swell.
    not as nice as Marx, but not at all bad to read, being a tad more terse.

    I’m fond of Art 6, c – To revolt against the corrupt reality in all intellectual, economic, social and political aspects of life.

    The Pan-Arab Socialist revolt against reality is mighty, mighty!!

  19. @ CK MacLeod:
    “An abdication of leadership”? Please. It’s a tired joke, but the leadership was coming from a C student puppet. Admittedly, having a hope-filled A student in charge hasn’t created much better leadership. It also hasn’t done much for belief in the power of positive ideas. I make myself feel better thinking that it’s a matter of him having hung out in the political world for too long. Every spiritual text speaks to what happens when even people of high consciousness don’t “keep holy company.” Fatalistically speaking, maybe we have nothing to lose. Certainly, it’s not high level of me to be interested in letting you know that the smoke and mirrors you defaulted to there in defense of your moral support of a low level solution really didn’t cut it, and I don’t think we can ever overestimate the personal nature of all of this. With the US action in Iraq, feelings of collective powerlessness found their expression in a governmental gone haywire, and feelings of personal powerlessness continue to inspire people to seek balance in an imaginary connection to the government’s power. There was no “we” involved in the US action. There was only the government doing what it did, while the rest of us just talked and talked about how right or wrong it was. You are right in that it was going to happen, because all we did was talk. Believing that it was inevitable is fatalistic whether it refers to action or not, and consciousness does count. Talk counts. We can elevate our talk. Obviously, we can only determine things positively by linking up with the positive. When another government is doing something beautiful, constructive, creatively loving, the US government should link up with it and put its resources into things happening on a high level. In respect to simple, peaceful things, we can send 18 year-olds to enact policy and it could go well. When the US sends them into complex, horribly confused situations, really, how well is that going to go? Come on. You say we’ve learned some things. Have we learned that especially in a no-draft society, we can’t send 18 year-olds into hellish circumstances? Even just a little humility would help encourage us away from the death-wish that really motivates low level solutions and toward simplicity. I would like to see the US government attach our resources to other governments doing great things. Relativistic fatalism would work in connection with us just going with what’s going well. There are pockets of people living peaceful, spirited existences. (See some of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s research). There has always been groups of people living peaceful, spirited existences on this planet. If history weren’t written by people who think in terms of victory and loss, that would be known. And even as things are according to our media-controlled, macho, war first world-view, we can still make our way through the door with the blood-filled bucket, as you very creatively state it, and then dance our way into partnerships of peace and love. It begins, not just with thinking that it’s possible, but with holy alliances. One person speaking of peace and love links up with another. Together, we then encourage our friends to feel powerful instead of powerless. And pardon me for getting too personal here, but how powerless can you be when your friends refer to you as “Tsar.” What more do you want? A big new-age hug? My guess is: not. Oh, well. I will keep thinking positively. To make things less annoying for people, I plan on wearing a t-shirt with the word “Vope” on it. I probably won’t follow through. Mostly, I just talk about doing things like that. I talk and I talk. Again, oh, well.

  20. Like I first noticed in Kedourie’s Chatham House Rules, referred in Bellow’s “Return to Jerusalem” a similar process occurred with Nasser
    and Miles Copeland, the former jazz player from Birmingham, who was the father of Stewart Copeland of the Police, and related to Courtney Cox, and James Eichelberger, a former advertising exec, seconded to the CIA, who came up with the idea of a political police ‘Mukharabat’They made the same mistake cultivating a clique of Baathist exiles, including Saddam.

    Aflaq, father of the Baath, took as his main lesson from his European
    education in the 30s, that fascism, was a viable project, and that
    was what he adapted for the beleaguered Sunni majority, that nonetheless controlled practically everything

  21. Are you really that naive Scott, to have reviewed the panoply of human history, and not conclude that existence in much of the world
    is in Hobbe’s word “nasty, brutish and short’ What of the regimes like
    Chirac’s France, Putin’s Russia, that profited by Saddam’s corruption,
    you don’t actually think there was anything idealistic there, do you.

  22. Scott Miller wrote:

    An abdication of leadership”?

    The leadership in question would be that of the nation in the world system, which you may or may not have looked into in much detail, but which you and your friends would sorely miss: You can begin by taking an inventory of everything in and around you, including the thoughts in your head, and tally how much of it consists of purely “domestic content.” The pseudo-monarch who signs the orders and gives the press conferences may or may not embody elements of leadership independently.

    The super state of peace and love that you describe already exists, but people still choose to tear it to pieces over and over again. You will also take your turn, over and over again – as you just did when you denied your likely far greater than 1/350,000,000th role in your country’s starting and fighting the Iraq Expedition. Your great chain of we-itude breaks down as soon as it becomes inconvenient to your self-image, apparently.

    How are we to knit together your happy network when even the best of us refuse moral responsibility? In order to establish something more dependable, we form different kinds of connection, in the spirit of the law and in institutions, the whole culture-state.

    I’m called “Tsar” because, when I founded this blog for my fellow refugees, my boss Mr. Obama was busy handing out Czarships. The more conventional term is “Webmaster,” which always suggested “spider” to me, not that I have anything against (most) spiders.

  23. @ CK MacLeod:
    Again, is it really “morally responsible” to advocate sending kids to violently enact policy that they don’t understand? You can spin this any way you like, but it will always come back to whether or not the action in question was morally deficient. You sided with a morally deficient action. It was a mistake. People make mistakes.
    Perhaps I should have refused to pay my taxes. Perhaps I’m wrong in holding the government responsible for spending my tax money on a homicidal venture. I recognize that it is a rare, perhaps even singular blessing to be able to even feel as though I can stand outside the actions of “my” country’s government, but I do feel that way. At the same time, I do fully take responsibility for knowingly paying somewhere close to a million dollars in taxes that instead of going to civil services went to homicidal military spending. But “let’s get one thin straight.” At this point, my self-image is something beyond your mind’s comprehension. Your heart can perceive who I am, but not your mind. (Again, check out Pearce for info on our hearts’, glial cells, and cardiological perception). After so much meditation, it would be sad if that weren’t the case. Ten thousand hours of meditation should do something. At the very least, it should give a person a relatively good sense of “everything in and around” them. It should give them a sense that the brain-chatter level of consciousness is interested in what you naively refer to as a “tally.” If I’m mistaken, and you have also sat in meditation of what is really in and around you for ten thousand hours, let me know. And just to clarify, I use the 10,000 hour quota because it’s the common number used by spiritualist like Ken Wilber when they are explaining this kind of thing. They say things like, “just as we accept what the majority of mathematicians say about the existence of negative numbers even though negative numbers seem imaginary to us, we should accept what the majority of people who have meditated for 10,000 hours tell us about taking inventory of everything in and around us because over the last five millennium, their views on what’s in and around us has been not only remarkably consistent, but of great help in respect to reducing suffering.” And before you think about a response, I recommend that you check out the YouTube video “Ken Wilber stops his brainwaves.” It might give you pause. Seeing how different a meditator’s brain is might encourage your brain to recognize its inability to discern what people who meditate recognize as “inconvenient” to our “self-image.” Of course, it would play against my intention here to lower your self-esteem, so I will also add that your mind is only a small part of your glorious being. Plus, I do think that your mind is actually more interesting than other peoples’. Therefore, I understand why you are so entranced by it. I would be too. In a way that transcends your friend’s past use of the term, you are truly special, Tsar, and your specialness serves us more than it serves you, so, again, I express my gratitude.

  24. Scott Miller wrote:

    Again, is it really “morally responsible” to advocate sending kids to violently enact policy that they don’t understand?

    We – and by “we” I mean “human beings” – haven’t ever required soldiers or warriors to understand why they’re fighting, or, even less, all to share the identical motivations or rationales. It’s not always clear to the people giving them orders “why” they’re fighting. You might even say that it’s never fully clear: Like everything else we do, but perhaps especially in war, our motivations may remain mysterious to us. We might think we know “why,” then only come to understand much later “really why,” and then some time after move on to “no, really, really why, maybe” and so on. It’s just words, interpretation, of decisions that may have been reached, as you might say, on a different level, or multiple levels, of consciousness. Why Hegel thought Napoleon was fighting his wars seems to have been vastly different from why Napoleon thought he was fighting, and the soldier who at first was fighting for the Revolution might later have decided he was fighting for France and then at another time have decided he was fighting for Napoleon, but, when pressed, have admitted he was fighting for the sake and respect of his immediate comrades.

    Among the merely intuited rather than consciously recognized motivations for our sending our people and weapons to the Middle East may even have been, precisely, the need to send relatively large numbers of relatively empty human vessels overseas to take in a concrete and intimate experience of this foreign land and its inhabitants, including by fighting them as well as for and with them – an excellent way get to know someone, and, multiplied out, for one national culture to become much more intimately knowledgeable regarding another national culture – and to learn things that can’t be learned any other way, even by meditating intensively. Our culture on its own terms may have needed to spend a decade (or maybe a generation or three) arguing about our relation to the rest of the world, and nothing holds the interest of those capable of being interested better than war. Or maybe we needed to convince ourselves through all that talk and talk that there wasn’t really any point in talking, and that this democracy thing isn’t what we hoped… Maybe we’ll see. Maybe we won’t.

    But, if your real interest is to argue against the morality of war, or against the morality of organizing and maintaining armed forces in the way that we do, and with our assumptions about what levels of understanding of policy we require of soldiers, that doesn’t have anything specifically to do with Iraq.

    As for your awareness via meditation of yourself and what’s around you, that doesn’t have much to do with my point. The odds are very high that the computer you are using to explain your qualifications as a meditating savant was manufactured in large part if not entirely outside the United States. The electricity that powers your computer is likely generated by a power plant running on fuel that arrived in this country by ship. Ditto for the clothes you wear, for the car you drive, and on and on. The lives we all lead are conditioned in obvious and subtle ways by our abiding connections to and situation within a globalized culture that was largely the creation of our democratic capitalist world hegemony, which is in major part defined by and sustained at profound expense by armed forces employing large numbers of men and women (whose understanding of what they’re doing and why,incidentally, may vary greatly).

    And the differences between our American world and other human worlds is very great. What’s normal for us, the way that we seek or claim to value individual lives is an historical peculiarity. It came at great cost, and is maintained at great cost. Because it’s natural to us, we tend to lose sight of how very different it is from the human norm for the last 100,000 years, and in much of the rest of the world – to say nothing of the “animal norm.”

    Finally, on that self-image jab: How you appear to yourself in all of your complexity and simplicity is a different category of self-relationship than the socially mediated moral self-image that you chose initially to protect against the chain of co-responsibility that goes well beyond your tax payments to the federal government.

    You invoked an ideal of good people spreading goodness through good contact. I say that people have always done that, but that as soon as intentionality takes on specific content – which it has to do in order to become real to self and others, on the way to having some positive impact of the sort you appear to favor, then it may come into conflict with other intentionalities, as even here you and I come into conflict… and so we fall into time and imperfection, and sooner or later someone would rather fight than switch.

    Um, you’re welcome! (Really.)

  25. (I was going to avoid Hegel, but his insights in relation to modern warfare are too much on point. To summarize: The renunciation of personal opinion on the part of the soldier is as definitional for the modern form and concept of valor, for the essence of being a soldier, as renunciation of personal freedom and morality, and willingness to sacrifice one’s life. Soldiers don’t fight for policies. They fight for their “country” – for the culture-state that alone gives their external lives meaning – as part of a whole, not as an assemblage of individuals. That also happens to be a critical difference between an effective fighting force and an ineffective one. Hegel notes that numerous philosophical extreme oppositions are brought together in warfare – such as total absence of self next to total presence of self – as well as the “most hostile and hence most personal action against individuals, along with a completely indifferent or even benevolent attitude towards them as individuals.” The sudden movement from one to the other attitude, as during a truce, or at the moment that peace is declared, or a particular battle finished, is frequently dramatized in war movies, for ironic effect, presented either as a mystery or as a commentary, from an individualistic perspective, on the supposed absurdity or irrationality of war. That absurdity would be the temporary breakdown of the state; that the war usually goes on anyway reflects the enduring and generally inescapable hold of the state on individuals.)

  26. (thus the old Drill Sergeant/superior officer joke, “If I decide I’m interested in your opinion, I’ll let you know what it is.”)

  27. @ bob:
    Shows you what I know: I thought you’d be taking Mr. Miller’s side, more or less. I accept that from his point of view, he’s an elephant seeking contact with ants – his personal or inward connection to the/a universal inexpressibly, probably frustratingly (apparent in the surface static) more profound than can be externalized and shared. You recall that discussion we had previously about “one-sided universalism”? The 10,000-hour meditator sharing himself would be like trying to channel the world’s greatest symphony orchestra over a crappy old walkie-talkie, and there’s a similar problem, I suspect, comparing his self-magnified subjectivity to particular aspects of social institutions and decisions, alongside a tendency to discount their complexity and their own modes of connection to the universal.

  28. @ CK MacLeod:

    Whatever ideas SM and I might agree on, I don’t recognize in his comments so far, ways of relating to the world with which I agree.

    With a lot of the discussions here that doesn’t matter. Here it does.

  29. Now, let me be clear. I meditate. I think everybody would be happier if they did too. But I know that not everyone shares that view.

    But as with everything, there are rules to follow. If you don’t follow the rules it doesn’t matter how long you spend doing something.

  30. CK MacLeod wrote:

    alongside a tendency to discount their complexity and their own modes of connection to the universal

    What was discounted was that I had begun with a simplification. Remember? The simple Einstein quote? It required no
    walkie-talkie. So, yes, I was trying to keep things simple. The Tsar wanted it to go in another direction. As the dialogue continued, and the issue of “problem solving” became more and more obscured, I guess it felt more contentious to others than what I was feeling. Really, I was just having fun. I still am. Of course, if I had been more skillful I could have channeled some symphony orchestra music into the frequency. Even played through my own crappy walkie-talkie, it could have been at least nice sounding. So I apologize for the static. Bob rightfully recognizes that every point of debate carries with it the consciousness of the thinker. My issue with blogging so far, however, is that we all seem to underestimate how much of the consciousness is really just our own, not the person’s about whom we are writing. And I’m not referring to simple psychological projection. This is different. This is a whole different level of it. So, again, to be clear, I was trying to make a simple point. One of the smartest people who ever lived–someone who I thought was a pretty neutral figure in the sense of not being Hegel or Gandhi–said something true about problem solving. As the Tsar has also made clear, there are other reasons for war other than problem solving. True enough. That’s where the spiderness (to my fly) came in. You’ve heard of what’s referred to as “splitting” in the world of psychology? It’s the one thing W was quite good at. When someone questioned his war policies on practical grounds, he debated it on moral grounds. When someone questioned his war policies on moral grounds, he debated it on practical grounds. The Tsar is also qood at splitting and since I just read his cute “smearing” jab at Miguel, I think it’s okay for me to point out other’s debate tactics. Of course, it would be more in keeping with my peace talk to be more peaceful sounding. As Hollywooders know, it ain’t easy being dramatic and peaceful at the same time. Isn’t it kind of the point of blogging to be entertaining? But, yes, Bob, I really did get off track with the 10,000 hr thing. What I really wanted to communicate had nothing to do with me. It was about the fact that in respect to problem solving, we don’t listen enough to the right people. If we listen to Einstein, in respect to problem solving, (not in connection with Hegelian social awareness), war is a low level solution. No amount of splitting will change that fact. At the same time, if the Tsar really did support the Iraq action not in connection with what the US government thought it was doing, but in connection with what it would do for our ability to understand and relate to another culture, then my initial point didn’t apply. He could have just said that. I assumed that his “support” connected with problem solving. It’s how I presented the issue in the first place. I don’t know. Now, he’ll claim something different. In regards to layering on information, he does what he accused Miguel of doing and there is my projection point again, and if I’ve made myself the fly again here, so be it. Even if I’m stuck in a web, I can listen to the symphony music. As you all know, it’s a choice we can all make and that point does track back to where this all really began. It was about our ability to determine things positively. From my perspective, if this has been a “fight,” it has been a play fight, within which we probably only seem to have learned more about each other. So, from here on, I will simply practice what I preach. I will write more mindfully and more peacefully. Just don’t blame me if you’re bored.

  31. Scott Miller wrote:

    At the same time, if the Tsar really did support the Iraq action not in connection with what the US government thought it was doing, but in connection with what it would do for our ability to understand and relate to another culture, then my initial point didn’t apply. He could have just said that. I assumed that his “support” connected with problem solving. It’s how I presented the issue in the first place. I don’t know. Now, he’ll claim something different. In regards to layering on information, he does what he accused Miguel of doing

    Please understand that I consider escalation in Iraq to have been overdetermined. The notion that we were there for the sake of a “learning experience” is an open attempt to shift the discussion from “who was right?” to “what happened?,” from imaginary moral superiority, based on ideology, to concrete moral understanding based on unprejudiced assessment of important facts in full context.

    I’m not sure how important it is, at least to us, to answer the question “who was right?” When I say “I’m not sure,” I mean “I’m not sure,” not “I doubt it is. If it is useful or important for us to address that question, then I don’t think we’re going to get very far beyond the familiar recitation of positions unless we do so from a position of concrete moral understanding.

    Speaking of a need to “learn about” Iraq is a rough and somewhat metaphorical way of describing the complex imbalances that the war partly, bluntly rectified.

    My view begins with the acknowledgment that we have spent several generations greatly influencing the course of life and death in Iraq without bothering to understand Iraq, without even, as a culture, acknowledging a need to understand Iraq. In a very real way, we only just barely seemed to recognize the Iraqis as human beings at all. At best, we treated them in the same way our weapons treat them: 1 American = 25 Iraqis. Except I think that we don’t count them even that high. I think they mostly don’t count for us at all. We mostly care more about the gophers we clear from our lawns, or the poor starving spiders trapped in our bathrooms, and certainly more about family pets, or even the neighbor’s family pet, than we care about Iraqis.

    At the time of the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the sanctions regime put in place after Gulf War I was more than a decade old. While we were tooling around in the ’90s watching the stock market go up, talking about the end of history with ourselves as victors, worrying about OJ and Monica, the people of Iraq, who never had had a chance to recover from two devastating wars, were still under the thumbs and other appendages of Saddam & Co., a government put in place, armed, and still supported by the Free World’s petrodollars.

    Depending upon whose numbers you chose to accept, those sanctions were more or less directly responsible for the deaths of 100,000s of Iraqis, mainly children. This was merely the most readily apparent and widely discussed negative aspect of a policy that opponents of the war mainly sought to deepen and extend indefinitely: That was their unity position and represented the main politically feasible alternative to OIF: Indefinite sanctions, indefinite “containment,” indefinite rule by Saddam and his sociopathic sons and all their relatives, including the completion of genocide against the Marsh Arabs, all the other very real aspects of the terror state – despair, torture, misery without end, paid for by us, under a continual risk of catastrophe (symbolized by WMD, but WMD only one, probably minor aspect of the larger threat).

    The sanctions regime, for the few of us even aware of it an unpleasant abstraction at most, was just the most dramatic example of the way that we go about our OJ and Monica lives without thinking about or taking responsibility for the world system that supports them. No one wants to look at the world that way, as a closed system, just as hardly anyone wants to give up their OJ and Monica lives either.

    The invasion of Iraq by our actual armed forces was in this sense something of a redundancy, a concrete realization of a relationship of violence and oppression that already existed, but that, in being concretized, could also finally be addressed and superseded. In this sense, the relative lack of initial resistance was symptomatic: It was as though the tank armies were already there, or were occupying pre-assigned positions. They roved through Baghdad at will, because they already owned Baghdad before they left home.

    That is why I wrote in the Iraq Syndrome post of three liberations. It was only by making ourselves targets, and by fixing our attention on Iraq, that we finally gave the Iraqis an opportunity to liberate themselves from us.

    That little of this was understood by most of the direct participants, and that the ones who did happen to understand it may often have been the most compromised figures of all, or the most uncompromisingly repellent, isn’t very unusual. It sometimes takes an extremist to speak an uncomfortable truth. We like it that way. It makes it much easier to ignore a truth if someone whom we rightfully hate is the one speaking it. Similarly, someone whom we already hate and are trying to kill has nothing to lose by speaking a hateful truth.

    One other thing: Hate George W Bush, deride him, criticize his decisions, whatever else, but he strove to see the Iraqis as human beings, capable of freedom and of being recognized as equals. As I’ve conceded, he had a naive and ignorant understanding of what giving the Iraqis that “gift” really meant, but that’s not the same thing as being “wrong.”

    And none of this has anything remotely to do with miguel’s irresponsible and deplorable support for the smear campaign against Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his associates.

  32. @ Scott Miller:

    Bob rightfully recognizes that every point of debate carries with it the consciousness of the thinker.

    That particular thought isn’t mine. I’m not really sure what you mean by it. I can imagine contexts in which I would agree with it, and others in which I would disagree.

    As for “listening to the right people”… If we can agree who the right people are, then for the most part, we will agree on the substantive issues.

    Mindfullness is a great thing, but it’s just a tool. I once heard a Geshe hilariously describe someone mindfully killing another.

    Peacefullness is also a great thing, but it too is just a tool.

    Boredom resides completely in the one who is bored.

  33. “War is Hell” so said Sherman, before he decided to demonstrate it, on the Road to Atlanta. It destroys, maims, mutilates, one wishes it were not so, but it is. It is rightfully considered one of the legitimate functions of the state, and spelled out as such. It is to be used sparingly, and only as a last resort. One of my complaints with the good Imam is his surprisingly simplistic analysis, for an Ivy league educated Physicist, of the US war aims, during the time he servedas an outreach coordinator with the Moslem world. His argument seemingly indicated that AQ and not the US was in the right, in this conflict

  34. miguel cervantes wrote:

    One of my complaints with the good Imam is his surprisingly simplistic analysis, for an Ivy league educated Physicist, of the US war aims, during the time he servedas an outreach coordinator with the Moslem world. His argument seemingly indicated that AQ and not the US was in the right, in this conflict

    You’ll have to provide a link to the Imam’s discussion of “US war aims,” and I don’t know that a Bachelor’s Degree makes you a physicist. You cling to the notion, as ever, despite extensive discussion, that conceding the existence of grievances in the Arab world and other flaws in U.S. policy, and seeing them as helping to explain a phenomenon like AQ and an event like 9/11, is the same as putting AQ “in the right,” even if one condemns AQ’s actions as crimes against humanity.

    Somehow, when Bill Kristol, or W, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or David Petraeus does such a thing, it’s mature and visionary, and even a justification for making war on regimes that are only indirectly connected, at most, to the events that inspired us to act, but, when the good Imam performs a similar analysis, it’s tantamount to treason and a darn good reason to deny him a building permit.

  35. @ bob:
    I was equating “attitude” with consciousness. My “attitude didn’t help” was your specific point. You were right. By extending that into a broader concept I lost you. Sorry. But as it always is with everyone, your attitude was involved. In this case, it didn’t help you roll with what I was getting at, even though your “I can imagine contexts in which I would agree with it, and others in which I would disagree” statement is evidence that you did at least understand me. In the future, how about we try to roll with each other’s points a bit more? I think it would lead to better dialogue. On my part, I will try to stick with the political nature of this blog. I try not to expose myself to the media much, so I don’t know if I have enough information to pull it off, but we’ll see.

  36. @ CK MacLeod:
    Right. Well stated. And, of course, Miguel’s view had nothing to do with what I was telling you before. You know that. I was strictly using it as an example of how we tactically accuse others of doing what we do ourselves. It only had to do with that, not the content of his smear. You knew that. Again, can we roll with each others’ points where possible? Obviously, it’s not possible in respect to Miguel’s views on Imam.

  37. They get this particular argument, such as one could call it that from Al Jazeera, in the time period involved. How exactly does that further
    our interests abroad. It lends itself to the Hamas argument that we are waging war on Islam when we’re not. Just like CAIR can have board members that have been connected to terrorist acts but we are not supposed to notice this

  38. @ Scott Miller:
    Politics is a main emphasis here – because politics is a main common arena where moral, historical, economic, and philosophical conflicts come into potentially illuminating relief. Steering into a more wide-ranging discussion would be fine with me, but I suspect that the discussion will continually re-politicize itself. We might start with meditation, or sports, or art, or language, or cute animal tricks, but as soon as a second person is involved, and common interests are at stake, it all turns into “politics” again.

  39. @ miguel cervantes:
    A position that can’t afford to be discussed honestly and openly is a very weak and brittle position.

    How exactly does that further
    our interests abroad.

    Our demonstrated willingness to see ourselves as the other sees us, and our success in taking on and honestly confronting the other’s point of view, is critical to gaining the other’s trust and peaceful cooperation. It must be an authentic seeing of the other’s point of view, including appropriate alterations of our language and conduct.

    A would-be mediator like Rauf by his very existence as an emissary of the U.S. government affirms such a willingness. By acknowledging and demonstrating an understanding of the other’s point of view, he makes it more likely that the other will be open to hearing our point of view. Ideally, in the process of closing the distance between “us” and “them,” the points of view will become less characteristic of conflict and division, and more characteristic of common points of reference.

  40. He tells these audiences that the US position is at best thoughtless and at worse, evil, we have plenty of outlets for that. He blames us for Bin Laden, not the Saudi establishment that recruited him from their own version of Sunday school, not the ISI that picked those
    mujahadeen that would best take their dictation. Having indicted us
    as an accessory, he then takes advantage of the vaccuum left by
    our aloof bureaucracy, to plant a marker on sacred ground, counting
    on the gullibility of the community board, that didn’t do the most minimum of due diligence

  41. miguel cervantes wrote:

    He tells these audiences that the US position is at best thoughtless and at worse, evil,

    Whose “US position”? National Review’s? It is thoughtless and at worse evil. Not his fault.

    You’re the kind of person who indicts Imam Faisal for a deftly executed plot “to plant a marker on sacred ground.” Your unreasoning hostility towards him has even extended to a willingness not just to pass along whatever latest smear as fact, but to make up new ones. Why should anyone trust your characterizations of his statements?

  42. Does he even bother to explain what we are doing in Afghanistan or Iraq, or did that matter to the future members of the Middle East Institute who were supervising him, yes Karen Hughes was no rocket
    scientist either,

  43. bob wrote:

    As for “listening to the right people”… If we can agree who the right people are, then for the most part, we will agree on the substantive issues

    I did suggest who the right people are. It’s not as subjective as it seems. There are clear indicators of people’s higher consciousness. The ability to stop brainwaves is one. And Ken Wilber isn’t even “realized.” When Ammachi hugs people for three days straight, she doesn’t rest, pee, drink water, or eat. She shows no ill effects. She emits love the entire time. That connects with my point. Yes, realized beings tend to stay completely clear of politics, but we could still do miles better with our choices. We could be looking for the relatively right people at least. Native American tribes referred to them as Elders. The Elders we need will have a worldview. They don’t have to be brilliant, but they need worldview level consciousness, rather than country level. It won’t keep them from understanding the complexities and modes of social institutions, to paraphrase the Tsar, but it will keep them from espousing country level homicidal perspectives that really track back to unhappy childhoods and are fundamentally no better than the excuses used by gang members. Obviously, I support a guy name Dave. I’m not really much help because I can’t spell his last name. Oh, well.

  44. Kanan Makiya, the author of ‘Republic of Fear” was one of those who argued for a liberation of Iraq, was he wrong to do so, Wolfowitz, whose opposition to corrupt oligarchs on at least two continents from the 1980s on, from Chile to the Phillipines, ultimately led to his removal from the World Bank was for the invasion. He saw the Baath as an obstacle, the perpetrators of the Anfal against the Kurds, other actions against the Shia.

    State who put two of the figures involved in Iraq at the time of the Anfal, Bodine and Eagleton, in their transitional authority, wanted the closest thing to an oligarch, Adnan Pachachi, the dinosaur of pre Baath politics, last seen in now Ambassador Oren’s book, arguing for the resolutions that checkmated Israel’s victory
    in the ’67 war. the late Ambassador Hume Horan, having seen what
    happens in Arabia and the Sudan, was also in favor of the operation

  45. @ Scott Miller:

    I was equating “attitude” with consciousness. My “attitude didn’t help” was your specific point. You were right. By extending that into a broader concept I lost you. Sorry. But as it always is with everyone, your attitude was involved. In this case, it didn’t help you roll with what I was getting at, even though your “I can imagine contexts in which I would agree with it, and others in which I would disagree” statement is evidence that you did at least understand me. In the future, how about we try to roll with each other’s points a bit more? I think it would lead to better dialogue.

    As a practical matter, I don’t know what any of this means. I can imagine contexts in which I would agee with it, and others in which I would disagree. I’m unclear which of these imaginary contexts is relevant.

  46. bob wrote:

    As a practical matter, I don’t know what any of this means. I can imagine contexts in which I would agee with it, and others in which I would disagree. I’m unclear which of these imaginary contexts is relevant.

    Good one, Bob. I’ll keep rolling with you.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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